So far, so good: Without Leo, Vikings begin HL schedule 2-0

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Photo: Cleveland State Athletics

As Cleveland State has ascended through the Horizon League and the larger women’s basketball world over the last four seasons, an uneasy question has hung in the air like a high-stakes three-pointer: are the Vikings good because they have a transcendent player, Destiny Leo, or are they good because there’s been a broader transformation in the program?

It’s nearly impossible to avoid the correlation between the timing of Leo’s career and CSU’s rise, given that the Vikings broke through to win their first postseason tournament championship, the 2021 Women’s Basketball Invitational, during the Ohio Ms. Basketball runner-up’s freshman season. Players like Amele Ngwafang, Brittni Moore and Nadia Dumas were all-conference performers during their careers of course, but Leo has always been the program’s unquestioned headliner. She’s the singular student-athlete in front of the media at every turn, she’s the reigning Horizon League player of the year (and a member of national watchlists as well), and she’s trying to become the team’s all-time leading scorer. Leo’s success, generally speaking, has been inseparable from Cleveland State’s success.

It’s equally difficult to avoid the contrasts between CSU and its chief rival for the HL championship, Green Bay. The Phoenix have been on top, or at least near the top, for a quarter century with numerous star players arriving and then leaving along the way.

Furthermore, their system isn’t overly reliant on any individual player. Last season offered ample evidence of that when one of Kevin Borseth’s best, Maddy Schreiber, was injured for the stretch run and the team didn’t miss a beat. Or, if you prefer, look at the individual awards that the Phoenix never seems to win in any sort of proportion appropriate for the championships they’ve collected. If there’s any sort of benefit of the doubt when it comes to program resilience, Green Bay has earned it.

Cleveland State’s bona fides in that department are a little less steady.  

There’s no need to look any further than the woman Leo is chasing in the Cleveland State record book, Kailey Klein. Klein arrived in Cleveland from tiny Cherry, Ill. in 2006 and instantly brought credibility to a Vikings program that was mediocre on its best days for most of its history. In her sophomore season, CSU toppled mighty Green Bay on their home floor in the conference tournament, then captured the first league title in program history two days later, earning its first NCAA Tournament bid in the process as well. The Vikings did all of that again in 2009-10, then Klein and her 2140 points entered the world of financial compliance after a brief pro career, and the team was 12-19 two years later.

That’s the uneasy intersection where the Vikings find themselves: What happens when their megastar is gone? The program was always going to confront that issue eventually through graduation, of course, but the fickle nature of the human body – that mechanism that can propel people to unbelievable athletic achievement before taking it all away a moment later – had other plans.

In other words, the reckoning is earlier than anyone hoped or planned, but it’s here. And so far, so good, as Cleveland State earned relatively comfortable wins over Robert Morris on and Northern Kentucky in its first two games without Leo to begin the Horizon League schedule 2-0.

“We won two games in this league without Destiny playing for the time being. That says a lot for this team’s confidence,” head coach Chris Kielsmeier said.

It’s no wonder that the team feels confident. Led by Colbi Maples, who totaled 48 points on Wednesday and Saturday, Jordana Reisma, who willed her way to a 13-point, 5-rebound effort to balance a stellar defensive outing at NKU, and a cast of quietly-effective, do-everything players like Sara Guerreiro and Carmen Villalobos, the Vikings looked far from helpless.  

Maples, a Grambling transfer, has probably been the most direct replacement for Leo’s production, handling point guard duties and slashing to the basket as needed, while also offering an effective deep shot and swarming perimeter defense.

“She’s a really tough guard to defend, I’m glad she plays on our team,” Guerreiro said. “She gets us going, and she finds other people too.”

It’s largely been a group effort though. Mickayla Perdue has responded with 15 and 13 points in her first two starting assignments as a Viking, Guerreiro and Villalobos have seen a small uptick in their offensive production, and Kielsmeier has made a more concerted effort to get his team’s post game working, through Reisma, Brooklynn Fort-Davis, and Paulina Hernandez.

“Your time will come at some point, be ready to impact the game and progress the program forward,” Kielsmeier said. “We have a team full of players that are doing that right now.”

“Our roles didn’t change significantly, but everybody has to do a little bit more,” Guerreiro elaborated. “Our team is counting on us, so that’s what we’re going to keep doing.”

To be clear, very little about the first week of the Horizon League schedule provided definitive answers about where Cleveland State will find itself at the end of February. Robert Morris is projected to finish near the bottom of the league, and Northern Kentucky had eight available players on Saturday, missing notables like Kailee Davis and Mya Meredith. The exams will undoubtedly become significantly tougher from here.

Additionally, the Vikings’ three-point defense remains a major concern for Kielsmeier, as does the fact that his team let both the Norse and Colonials back into contests that appeared to be salted away at halftime.

“I think that we learned that we’re still pretty consistently inconsistent with everything that we’re doing,” he said. “We’re consistent, really good at times, in a lot of areas of the game. And in other areas of the game, we’re making a lot of mistakes and really just struggling to find continuity to play for a long stretch of great basketball.”

“If you look at our overall stats on the year, the number one thing that will stick out is three-point field goal percentage defense. We’re giving up way too many good looks on the outside, we’ve gotta get that fixed. Quickly. We don’t run zone to give up a lot of threes, and that’s what’s happening. It’s a lot of mistakes that we’re making, it’s some young kids in the system that don’t kind of grasp the importance of doing things [the right way], and that’s what we’ve gotta work on Monday.”

Still, those shortcomings and the degree of difficulty aside, Cleveland State’s first week of conference play was a success. And right now, the program’s goal of a first regular season title still seems possible, contrary to what many likely assumed after Leo went down.

“It’s this thing called life,” Kielsmeier said. “There are no asterisks, you either get things done or you don’t, and you’ve gotta have a group that really understands that.”

“We’re doing this for the whole team, and we always have counted on Destiny, we’ve always relied on her,” Guerreiro added. “But now it’s our time to show that we’ve got this. The team, all of us, have contributed a little bit more, and that’s how we achieve success.”

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